Shortly after 9 p.m. on February 11, Zoran Brkovic descended into the basement of his south-city brick bungalow and noticed something awry. The cellar door was scuffed, a window ajar. He thought it odd, yet nothing was missing.
Brkovic phoned his wife, Senada, who was tending Piramida, the family's Gravois Avenue café in Little Bosnia. When she heard the news, she screamed out to her 24-year-old son Dennis, "Watch the café!" Senada then raced to her car, wanting to get home quickly to count the pile of cash stashed in her bedroom.
On the way home, Brkovic heard a clunking noise: a flat tire. Panicked, she phoned Zoran for help, but he hesitated to leave the house and their younger son alone. "It's only two blocks!" Senada begged. "Bring him."
Zoran came to the rescue, quickly changed Senada's tire, and the family returned home 40 minutes later. This time, though, something really was missing: a shoebox filled with $12,000, all of it in $20 denominations.
A frantic Senada Brkovic called police -- something rarely done among Bosnian crime victims.
"Most of the time, people take care of whatever they need to take care of themselves," explains Sanela Konjevic, the lone Bosnian patrol officer in the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. "I believe in all reality if the suspects [in this case] could have taken all the money back to the victim, the police wouldn't have been involved."
But Senada Brkovic proved an exception to the Bosnian community's "all in the family" approach to bad behavior within their ranks. She wanted vengeance badly enough to play detective herself. Searching for clues, she worked the phone, calling friends and café patrons.
On February 18 a customer she calls "Old Sir" came to the café with two Bosnian youths who had knowledge of the shoebox caper. Brkovic proceeded to gently pry information from them. "I say, 'My son, just talk to me like it's your mom. I won't hurt you.'"
The next day Brkovic hauled her pair of informants down to see a south-city detective. They proceeded to spill the beans of the burglary plot. Police made their first arrest that same evening.
The St. Louis Circuit Attorney's office subsequently charged three seventeen-year-old Bosnians with second-degree burglary: Zuhdija Menkovic, a former café employee; Dino Didovic, Senada Brkovic's second cousin; and Semir Krivic. Police also arrested a juvenile implicated by the teenagers. He was later released.
"If you have a Bosnian crime, your suspects in the majority of cases are going to be Bosnian suspects," notes Lieutenant Michael Caruso, the south patrol bureau chief. "It seems like they only pick on one another."
Neither police nor the St. Louis Circuit Attorney tracks crimes by ethnicity.
In his confession, Menkovic, a former Piramida barkeep, said he frequently closed the café and carried the day's proceeds to the Brkovics' home. On several occasions, he noticed the cash-filled shoebox.
A month before the robbery, Brkovic terminated Menkovic in order to hire a bartender of drinking age. The ex-employee craved revenge, police say, and believed there was actually $50,000 in a box under Brkovic's bed. Menkovic described Brkovic's "pillow account" to Krivic, someone Menkovic admired for his cunning.
Krivic enlisted Didovic and a juvenile to participate in the break-in. Over the course of several weeks, the crew made three unsuccessful burglary attempts before snaring their treasure.
The first botched attempt, police say, took place sometime in the first week of February. The youths broke a basement window but bolted when Zoran Brkovic returned home unexpectedly. Brkovic subsequently nailed the window shut with plywood.
Then, on the afternoon of February 11, the group struck again. Didovic knocked on the door, and no one answered. One of the young burglars then split the plywood on the cellar window and tried to kick open the interior door leading into the house. Didovic got scared, and the mission was aborted.
A persistent Krivic and the juvenile dropped Didovic off at a basketball game and headed back to the Brkovics'. By then, Zoran Brkovic was home. Krivic and his sidekick brainstormed ways to finish the job, deciding in the end to swing by Piramida and slash Senada's tires. The boys figured a flat tire would send her husband running to help.
The plan worked, and that evening Krivic snatched the shoebox from the bedroom and ran. Outside, he and the juvenile were so rattled and nervous that they threw up, according to the incident report. Krivic put the $12,000 in a trash bag and hurled the shoebox into a nearby dumpster. Later, after hiding the loot in a wooded area alongside Grant's Trail, Krivic tossed his gloves and the garbage bag into the Mississippi River.
Two days later the young men recovered the stash where they'd left it. Krivic treated Didovic to $600 and a cell phone for his criminal assistance. Menkovic got his cut, too -- $1,400, which he used for new tires, rims and tinted windows for his electric-blue 1993 Honda Civic. And Krivic spent his booty on clothes, food and several parties inside rooms at a Motel 6 and the Oak Grove Inn on South Lindbergh Boulevard. Krivic furnished the cocaine, marijuana and booze, police say.
All the teens were rounded up over the course of a week. Police say the money had been so quickly squandered that not a cent remained. Menkovic, Didovic and Krivic were indicted by a grand jury on St. Patrick's Day and are scheduled to be arraigned on separate dates later this month. The teenagers are free on bond. In Missouri's criminal justice system, seventeen-year-olds can be prosecuted as adults.
Some Bosnians, meanwhile, say it's usually best to leave police out of criminal matters. "When I think it's a friend, I talk to him first," says Hasan, a Bosnian contractor who requested that his last name not be used in this story.
That's what happened when a Bosnian businessman had several thousand dollars stolen from him a few years ago. The man, who declined to be named for this article, correctly suspected a relative and resolved the matter himself so as not to strain family relations.
Bosnians, who comprise between 5 and 10 percent of the city's population, say self-policing arises for several reasons: a desire to give a second chance to someone having trouble adjusting to life in America, language difficulties and an ignorance or wariness of the U.S. law enforcement system.
"Our people are skeptical of everybody," observes Ahmed Jakupovic, president of St. Louis' Bosnian Chamber of Commerce.
Brkovic, meanwhile, is in contact with the Circuit Attorney's Victim Services Unit, wondering what -- if any -- restitution she might receive.
"They damaged my cars, they damaged my house, they damaged my business," Brkovic laments. "Who's going to pay?"